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Tuning Over the Decades

The Devils took down the Florida State Seminoles, previously undefeated in the ACC, Saturday at Indoor Cameron Stadium
The Devils took down the Florida State Seminoles, previously undefeated in the ACC, Saturday at Indoor Cameron Stadium

From an old studio on the fringes of East Campus, Duke University sometimes resonates a hum, sometimes wails an infernal weirdness. Its varied buzz can be heard throughout much of the Triangle by tuning a radio dial to 88.7 FM.

A space in the Bivins Building—walls quite literally lined with music, shelves cluttered with radio equipment from many eras—sends a signal to a transmitter hidden in a Hillsborough forest that oscillates at a frequency of 88,700,000 cycles per second.

A 30-year history of the studio is told by what fills it. CDs, vinyl records and digital music all occupy the same space. A stack of CD players is sandwiched between record players on one side and flat screen monitors on the other. The artifacts and technologies, along with their human operators, work together to put music, public service announcements, news, sports coverage and other media on the air for 24 hours every day.

And at the top of every hour, per Federal Communications Commission policy, tuned-in listeners can hear the disc jockey rattle off the station identification.

“It’s 10:59 p.m., and you’re listening to 88.7 WXDU, Durham,” I say in my deep, apathetic radio host voice when I run a show on WXDU. I then announce the next track, get the record spinning, flip up the volume on the record player and allow the music to do the rest of the talking.

Perhaps an undergraduate like me is out of place on FM radio. It is an antiquated medium to many—or even most—college students in the era of Spotify and Soundcloud, but it has not always been that way.

Thirty years ago, a group of ambitious and dedicated Duke undergraduates labored to bring an FM frequency to campus. One of those students was Michael Schoenfeld, who graduated from Trinity in 1984 after helping found WXDU in 1983, and then went on to pursue a career in broadcast media.

Fast-forward three decades. Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, now works from a haute Allen Building office. His online “Leadership Profile” says he “oversees communications and advocacy for the University... and serves as Duke’s chief spokesperson”—a professional-sounding title, to say the least. When students see him, he is in a suit and tie. His salt and pepper hair is conservatively cut.

But he still is fiery and strange, like one might expect of a college radio pioneer. When I sent him an email asking to talk about his experiences founding the station, he quickly replied “I’d love to.” Thirty years of WXDU history separated the two of us, the reporter-DJ and University spokesman-DJ, and the prospect of imparting his FM radio wisdom to both The Chronicle and WXDU’s infant generation seemed to animate Schoenfeld.

He made amazing claims and remembered the advent of WXDU in great detail. In October 1983, the first song to ever air on WXDU was David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” Schoenfeld recounted. He was pleased that the song’s title signified that Duke students had successfully facilitated a move from a stubborn AM carrier current—a type of signal that required a wired connection to a wall—to an FM frequency.

There were more than 200 student volunteers interested in working at WXDU when it first started, he said. College FM radio was something novel and exciting in 1983. It was a channel to broadcast students’ voices into the greater Durham area and a place to play relatively undercover music. Schoenfeld beamed during this blast to the past, recalling all the music he used to play—The Clash, The Replacements, Talking Heads. He and his fellow DJs played all of the essentials of college rock in 1983, as well as a wide selection of jazz and other genre-specific shows.

WXDU’s founders were not all necessarily friends, Schoenfeld noted. But they shared a passion for broadcast and a dedication to Duke’s radio presence—a passion and dedication that remains in bits at the station. The WXDU logo produced in 1983 by Schoenfeld’s roommate, Matt Laffey, Trinity ’84, is still intact.

“If there is one word I could use to describe WXDU... it would be eclectic—eclectic in every way,” said Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, who sat on the Duke Union board in 1983 when the union approved the $76,000 in funding that WXDU would need to erect its tower and hit the airwaves.

WXDU further developed its eclecticism over the past 30 years, but Duke’s radio did not always cater outside the mainstream.

Mike Woodard, Trinity ’81, helped to oversee Duke’s station-to-station transfer. In his four years as an undergraduate, Woodard, who served as a Durham City Council member from 2005 to 2013 and now serves a Democratic state senator, worked for WDUK, the aforementioned AM carrier station on campus. Woodard said that after he was WDUK’s general manager, he stuck with the station until 1991 as a DJ and was the station adviser from 1981 to 1987.

As he oversaw the switch from WDUK to WXDU in 1983, Woodard said he witnessed a great change in the station’s personality.

“In 1977, we were a top-40 station,” he said. “We even had little jingles to promote the station.... But as the years went on we solidified a progressive format.”

“Progressive” is one way to put it, but many people from more recent WXDU generations, myself included, have employed choicier words; “weird” and “fringe” are among the most common.

The current WXDU staff is comprised of about 50 Duke students and 50 Durham community members, said junior Jake Cunnane, the station’s general manager. The majority of this staff falls into at least one of several alternative-scene archetypes, though they may resist being classified according to those traditions, as is probably expected.

In 1997, WXDU recorded an oral history online in a project called “Seizing the Sound.” In this project, Janette Park, Trinity ’99 discussed the opportunity afforded by WXDU to Duke students who do not identify with mainstream Duke culture. Upon arriving to Duke, she said she saw most people as “crazy frat boys,” causing her to conclude that “everyone here sucks!”

Duke frat boys, a stereotype that station members seem to regard as generally prevalent on campus, are sparse at WXDU. Alternative cultures reign supreme. Staff members bond over the underground shows, weekly bowling outings and a dedication to good musical programming.

And maybe understandably so, “typical” Duke students don’t listen to their own campus’s radio station. When I unscientifically asked a large swath of Duke undergraduates, “do you listen to WXDU?” I was most commonly met with the response “What’s that?” closely followed by “No.” And inaccessibility is not the issue; although very few students use FM radio as their main source of music consumption, there is a 24-hour live stream of WXDU online.

In a recent interview, Park admitted that she gave the 1997 interview after having a few beers and that her language may have been overstated, but that the sentiments remain true.

“My first week at Duke was kind of horrifying,” noted Park, who ended up working at the station as a programming director and general manager. There were a lot of people there, and they all seemed the same to me—just the same in a way that was not like me. I thought, ‘Oh my god. Holy shit. I’m not going to fit in here.’ But the station was great for me, especially in a social way. It helped me meet other like-minded students I would not have met otherwise.”

Perhaps the station’s “otherness” is inherent to WXDU’s strength and personality, as the music and broadcasting is like an extension of the staff. “There is no exact sound of WXDU,” Cunnane said, noting that each DJ brings his or her own unique style to the air. Some DJs play old school urban music. Many of the old-guard Durhamite DJs spin grungy garage rock. Others play what I would consider to be the more sonically appealing version of a knife accidentally dropped into the garbage disposal.

And that description is not meant to insult that DJ’s taste—college radio is exactly the locale for experiments in wacky genre. As WXDU is classified as an FCC Educational Non-Commercial station, both its listeners and its DJs are working to educate and be educated on music and broadcasting.

“WXDU, as a member of the Duke University Union, exists to inform, educate and entertain both the students of Duke University and the surrounding community of Durham through quality progressive alternative radio programming,” reads part of WXDU’s mission statement.

Through music and on-air education, the radio-guru Durhamites train and teach Duke undergraduates how to disc jockey, develop their on-air presences and mix music and interact with artists, among many other skills—a testament to the importance of WXDU’s community members DJs.

WXDU is a unique DUU committee in that half of its staff members are not Duke students. The community member DJs and staff have varying degrees of affiliation with the University. And throughout WXDU’s history there has been a fluctuating ratio of student DJs to community DJs—a point of a good deal of controversy. As few as six years ago, Cunnane said, there were only two undergraduate DJs, a stark contrast to the 200 eager undergraduates Schoenfeld mentioned.

Many past and current WXDU affiliates I interviewed emphasized the importance of striking a balance between undergraduate and community staffers. Stephen Conrad, a DJ who has been with the station for 11 years, works at the Duke University Bookstore. He has trained undergraduate DJs in his career at WXDU, and his job allows him to interact with undergraduates on a daily basis. He said the station relies on its undergraduates for its liveliness, and leadership on campus and its community members for a backbone and sense of continuity—both groups have shaped the station’s collective personality over the years.

A current pair of DJs—pseudonyms “L A U R E N” and “ChEYEnne”—describe their coveted Monday 4 to 6 p.m. rush hour show as “dusty star junk floatin’ around in the airwaves.” Three decades ago, a younger, more raucous Schoenfeld held a talk show during which his girlfriend, his roommate and his roommate’s girlfriend—all of whom employed different pseudonyms each week—were his three regular call-ins. It seems as if a collective devotion to broadcast and strangeness keep WXDU whirring through the speakers of Triangle area listeners as it barrels into its 30th anniversary.

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